When Sent Church in San Angelo, Texas, was founded three years ago with an emphasis on missional communities, pastor and church planter Josh Lilly never envisioned involvement in ministry to a local strip club.
But after meeting Judy James, founder of LACE Ministries (Ladies Achieving Christ's Excellence), Lilly realized his church had a unique opportunity to reach women caught up in the industry.
LACE began as an outgrowth of James' master's level studies. A social worker with an undergraduate degree in criminology, a background in adult and juvenile probation and experience working at a rape crisis center, James researched an international network of strip club ministries and an anti-pornography ministry for graduate work in urban ministries.
"The more I found out, the more I knew I wanted to do something like that," she said. "I never expected it to take off like it has. … I know I am right where God wants me to be. I know that this has been His plan all along."
God's plan has taken James and a few volunteers into San Angelo's only strip club at least once a month since December 2015. Research indicated gaining entry to a club would be difficult, but this proved not to be the case for LACE.
"The first time we went, we didn't know if we would get in," she recalled. Carrying gift bags of cosmetics and sundries, James and a volunteer nervously approached the club's bouncer, who called the owner.
"The owner said, 'Go on back. You can go anyplace,'" James said. "We walked in and started passing out bags. Girls came off the stage and out of the dressing room to get a gift bag. … Not only did we get in, but we were given free rein to talk to anyone we wanted." James called such immediate access "unheard of" in strip club ministry.
LACE emphasizes developing friendships with the dancers. "We are meeting a basic human need. Some agencies provide food and clothing. We provide love and acceptance," she explained.
LACE volunteers' initial goal is "just to be their friend and tell them that Jesus loves them," James said. "They begin to ask questions like 'Why do you do this?' and it gives us an open door to share the Gospel with them."
In addition to monthly visits, LACE celebrates dancers' birthdays with cakes made by a volunteer. Gift bags may include devotionals, copies of the Gospel of Mark and T-shirts emblazoned with "Jesus Loves Strippers."
On Easter, LACE provided an entire Sunday dinner to the club. Dancers and employees enjoyed the meal and heard a brief Gospel presentation. "God was in the strip club," James said, adding that Sent Church paid for the dinner.
"I couldn't do this without Sent Church," she said. She approached Pastor Lilly early on with her fledgling idea and asked if a strip club ministry was "something that Sent Church would do."
"YES!!!" Lilly replied.
"I am loving what is going on right now with LACE," Lilly said. "Judy has a great passion for the marginalized and ostracized of our community, specifically as it relates to women in the sex industry.
"We do have a missional community set up to receive those people," Lilly continued, adding that only women accompany James to the club.
Sent Church members also provided funds to help one dancer exit the industry and return to her family in Dallas.
"We help where we can," Lilly said.
For Judy James, loving the ostracized also means fielding phone calls at 2 a.m. The dancers, a largely transient population, "know how to contact us," she said. And many do, reaching out for prayer and a person to talk to.
Prostitution is often associated with strip clubs, but the San Angelo club does not permit this, James said. However, with its highways and proximity to Mexico, San Angelo is a hub for human trafficking, she added. Thus LACE also focuses on education.
In all aspects of the ministry, the goal is to introduce women to the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For more information on LACE Ministries, visit laceministries.org.
This article appeared in the Southern Baptist TEXAN (texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Jane Rodgers is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN.